Sunday, September 30, 2018

Quick Bite: Rakitori Japanese Pub & Grill

Yakitori skewers at Rakitori
Yes, I eat a lot of pork belly.
The first step is admitting you have a problem.
Sunday lunch was a trip to Rakitori Japanese Pub & Grill on University Avenue, a cozy dimly lit spot near the center of Hillcrest. They serve a wide assortment of Japanese cuisine including sushi, ramen and yakitori.

We decided to start off splitting some skewers. The bacon-wrapped enoki skewers were very nice, salty with a peculiar bite from the threadlike mushrooms. The bacon could have been a bit crisper. The pork belly was deliciously savory with the right amount of fat and a slight char.

We ordered one roll, the Surprise Me, which contrary to its name was nothing all that shocking. It had spicy tuna inside, salmon outside, and the only unusual part was the garlic mustard sauce, which was good but milder than it sounds. Tasty overall, but not a standout.

My wife's rice bowl consisted was topped with broccoli, carrot, lettuce and a generous helping of pork belly, topped with teriyaki sauce and a bit of green onion. It was a pretty simple dish since much of it was just white rice and steamed veggies, but the pork was tender and lightly sweet from the sauce.

Spicy tonkotsu ramen at Rakitori
I had the spicy tonkotsu ramen, which was excellent. It was a large bowl full of thin-style noodles and savory broth, with a layer of (moderately spicy) chile oil on top. The other elements all integrated well into the dish: sweet corn, soy-glazed medium-boiled egg, the soft juicy pork belly, scallion and a hint of ginger. This would be a great bowl to warm up with on a rainy day. All in all, some of the better ramen I've had, which is impressive considering it's not necessarily their specialty.

Based on the name, Rakitori could easily be a place that does skewers well but not much else. Instead, it's mostly successful in taking on a lot of different styles of Japanese cuisine. It's probably a good place to come with a group, as there's sure to be something to suit every taste—and there'll be more plates to sample, too.

Score: 8 out of 10 (Superior)

Friday, September 28, 2018

Happy Hour Bite: Nine-Ten

Nine-Ten Restaurant patio
Nine-Ten is the kind of place that would have a Michelin star or two if those lazy bums would bother to make their way down to San Diego. It's seriously one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city, but today I'm going to talk about their happy hour.

Due to my work schedule, happy hour for me usually translates to "very late lunch," so while I may occasionally grab a drink, my focus is always on the food. During happy hour, Nine-Ten offers half off the bar food, putting their masterful small plates in the $6–8 range.

The hamachi sashimi is a great light dish. The freshness of the hamachi really comes through, enhanced with a touch of salt. The scallion vinaigrette adds a delicious vibrant acidity; I almost wished I had a spoon to scoop up every drop. My only real issue with this plate was that the marinated mushrooms soaked up a lot of the vinegar flavor, making them a bit more intense than I'd like.

While I'm at it, I'll mention another of my favorite bar plates that I didn't have on my last visit: the avocado shrimp toast. I know avocado toast is has attained memetic status at this point, but I don't care when it's this good. This dish looks and tastes like a spring garden on bread. The luxuriously creamy guacamole base is topped generously with cilantro, thinly sliced radish, and serrano for a nice prickle of heat. While the salty queso fresco crumbles are essential, the perfectly cooked shrimp are the star of the show, sweet and tender with just the lightest of chars. Even my wife, who usually hates the texture of shrimp, admitted they weren't bad. Truly, this must be a magical place.

Roasted corn & ricotta agnolotti at Nine-Ten
Now, it says something about how much I trust head chef Jason Knibb and his team that, rather than being disappointed when I saw their fantastic mushroom agnolotti had been replaced with a different one, I was excited to try their latest creation. The roasted corn and ricotta agnolotti seamlessly blends Italian tradition, Mexican flavors and the comfort food richness into a plate that feels familiar yet totally unique. The sweet corn sauce is reminiscent of a hearty corn chowder, and it meshes well with the salty cotija, fresh cilantro, and lime-spicy Tajín. Biting into these pasta pillows lets the ricotta come gushing out. The agnolotti's al dente bite provides an important contrast in such a creamy dish. I would welcome a bit more heat to cut through the cream and round out the Mexican flavors, but that's just one quibble in an otherwise outstanding plate.

In addition to being one of the best special occasion restaurants in the city, Nine-Ten has become my go-to when I want to treat myself after a taxing work day. There just aren't many places here putting out creative plates at this level of refinement, at this price point. I only hope I'm not spoiling one of San Diego's best-kept food secrets!

Score: 10 out of 10 (Phenomenal)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Quick Bite: Atypical Waffle Co.

Dining area of Atypical Waffle Company
"Why yes, as a matter of fact those are vintage stadium seats.
Thanks for noticing. Have we mentioned we're atypical?"
Atypical Waffle Co. is an odd place. Partly hidden behind a laundromat, it's easy to miss unless you know where to look. But then, as you walk through the large opened gate (there's no real door), you feel like you've stepped into something that's part patio, part commune. The employees are friendly and laid-back almost to a fault. There's funky graffiti art everywhere—from the replica Banksy on the wall to the Obey Giant posters sprawled across the movable oversized coffee table—underscoring the countercultural vibe. Towards the back, there's a large tent in the shape of a classic Volkswagen bus.

Sooo, yeah. An odd place.

So much so that the waffles seem a bit tame by comparison, though they still have their quirks. They are in fact a special type of Belgian waffle, the Liège waffle, which uses chunks of pearl sugar in the dough to create a dense, lightly sweet bite.

The Number Seven waffle at Atypical Waffle Company I've been twice, and both times I got The Number Seven—with candied bacon, goat cheese and avocado it just seems the obvious choice on the savory side. Unfortunately, this time were out of their lilikoi (aka passionfruit) lemonade, which was refreshing and deliciously tropical when I had it previously.

The Number Seven is very respectable (and appropriately atypical) waffle. It's a wonderful mix of flavors: You get some tanginess from the goat cheese, salt from the bacon, and sweetness from the bacon's brown sugar crust and the waffle itself, along with a nice avocado creaminess. When you manage to corral all those ingredients together into one bite, it's heavenly. (That's easier said than done, though, since the avocado's plunked in the center, and the cheese crumbles tend to roll off and onto the tray.) Also, it's a small thing, but both times the avocado has been a bit stringy; while they don't affect flavor, those little brown fibers just aren't so appetizing.

Back patio at Atypical Waffle Company
Yeah, I wasn't kidding about the tent.
"Atypical Waffle" is clearly the right name for this place (and an improvement on "Wow Wow Waffle," its previous moniker). It's the sort of spot that I won't visit very often, but I'm really glad to know exists in our city. Because after all, who doesn't need a little oddity and a tasty waffle in their lives once in a while?

Score: 7.5 out of 10 (Great)

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Review: Single Fin Kitchen (& Little Italy Food Hall)

Hamachi bowl at Single Fin Kitchen
The hamachi bowl comes everything,
including the kitchen sink.
Poké is over.

Food halls are the hot new culinary trend. They're popping up across San Diego County, and while they're similar in format to your classic mall-rat, Hot-Dog-On-A-Stick food courts, they're generally more sophisticated and thoughtful about the cuisine on offer.

The newly opened Little Italy Food Hall, where Amy and I went for date night, is a great example. Its six gourmet food (and drink) options include killer Milanese pizzas from Ambrogio15 and Sam the Cooking Guy's decidedly non-traditional Not Not Tacos.

We first grabbed a couple of drinks from the Food Hall Bar. Amy got the Piazza Spritz, a bright, fresh blend of prosecco, aperol, grapefruit liqueur and blackberry. I got the daiquiri italiano, which was nice and sweet with a prominent nutty amaretto flavor.

Drinks at Little Italy Food Hall
For dinner we opted for Single Fin Kitchen, which specializes in Japanese-style seafood. We started off with some shishito peppers. Usually about one in ten of these are actually hot, but in this batch I'd say at least half of them brought some serious pain. The ponzu and topping of smoky bonito flakes were pleasant additions (when I wasn't dying of spice!).

Single Fin's main attraction is its elaborate donburi rice bowls—and I do mean elaborate. As we watched their creation, it was almost comical how many sprinklings of extra ingredients they got, even after they looked finished. To give you an idea: Amy's bowl contained rice, hamachi sashimi, hamachi tartare with green onion, shiso leaf, cucumber, chile threads, avocado, radish, pickled veggies, smoked bonito flakes, microgreens, seaweed and furikake. Whew!

Salmon bowl at Single Fin KitchenWas all that complexity really worth it? Well... actually yes, for the most part. It could easily have been overwrought, but instead it was like a whole ecosystem of harmonious flavors. You could create a forkful of hamachi tartare with a bit of minty herb fragrance from the shiso and some hearty bonito... or maybe a delicate bite of sashimi that balances chile threads with cooling cucumber.

My bowl, the Salmon 360, included three types of salmon—sashimi, tartare and torched belly—as well as sake-marinated salmon roe, microgreens and a thin slice of fried egg. The salmon belly was delicious and tender. The egg, too, was almost melt-in-your-mouth. I really liked the ocean flavors of the seaweed and spices. If there's one problem with these bowls, it's all too easy for the taste of the fish to get lost in the jungle of ingredients.

The staff was friendly and funny—and apparently in a good mood too, because they also gave us a free scoop of black sesame ice cream. Let me tell you, they weren't messing around; it was so rich with sesame seeds that it tasted almost like a peanut or almond butter. The trade-off, though, was in the texture: Since it was so packed with ground seeds, it really wasn't all that creamy. Still, we finished every bite just to savor the uniqueness of that sweet sesame flavor.

The creativity on display at Single Fin was positively kaleidoscopic. Sure, maybe not every element in the bowls really needed to be there. And by the time we finished, I actually felt slightly exhausted from the variety (and maybe those peppers had something to do with it too). But there also something exciting about having such a host of ingredients lovingly assembled by folks who obviously care about their craft. I want to try the other stations in Little Italy Food Hall, but it'll be hard when Single Fin is right there tempting me.

Score: 8.5 out of 10 (Excellent)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Quick Bite: Oi Asian Fusion

Adobo Bowl at Oi Asian Fusion
I tried Oi the other day because it seemed like an ideal lunch stop: intriguing Asian-fusiony protein-and-rice bowls at a reasonable price. I ended up slightly disappointed.

I ordered the Adobo Bowl ($9), which the girl at the counter said was the most popular. It comes with braised pork belly, adobo sauce, soft boiled egg and scallions. I splurged an extra 60 cents for garlic rice instead of regular.

Good news first: the pork belly itself was really good, tender and crispy with the right level of fattiness. The egg was just runny enough to add a nice creaminess to the mix. The scallions were tasty as expected and provided a little freshness to offset all the pork... just not quite enough.

The adobo sauce was a little on the sweet side, but the main issue with this bowl—and I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out—is that it actually went overboard on pork belly. This was just crying out for some sautéed broccoli, maybe a few fried garlic chips, something to add more variety and balance all that heaviness. I'm also about 95% sure they forgot about the garlic rice—either that or there was only enough garlic in there to be detectible with scientific instruments.

This really wasn't that bad. The flavors were mostly good, though it tasted increasingly like sauce near the end. But leaving Oi, my first thought was that I felt like I had a rock in my stomach, and the second was that they were close to an awesome dish, but not quite there. I may well return since there's a lot of other stuff on the menu, but I'm not feeling any sense of urgency.

Score: 5.5 out of 10 (Fair)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Quick Bite: Smokeyard BBQ

Barbecue ribs & chicken at Smokeyard BBQ
Typical Sundays for me involve lunch and maybe a movie with my wife and parents. This week we tried out Smokeyard BBQ & Chop Shop, a relatively new addition to UTC Mall. I know barbecue snobs—er, connoisseurs—have some very strong opinions, so hopefully I don't offend anyone by saying that the barbecue game here is pretty strong.

The best things I tried were the St. Louis spare ribs with Smokeyard sauce and, surprisingly, the BBQ chips. The ribs had that classic tender, falling-off-the-bone texture that's made them a Southern staple, coated but not smothered in a balanced sweet but tangy sauce. They'll be my choice on any future return trip.

That plate came with barbecue chicken, which was fairly moist and tender but couldn't really measure up to the ribs. (Then again, they're ribs—few things can!) The side was a sweet potato mash with pecans. It had a nice autumn sweetness, though to me the appeal of those flavors tends to wear thin after a few bites.

Fried chicken sandwich at Smokeyard BBQMy fried chicken sandwich was pretty tasty. It had a lightly sweet brioche bun and juicy chicken with the gratifying crunch you get from a thick batter. They went a little heavy on the peri-peri sauce, though, which tasted much like a buffalo sauce. That flavor often dominated, so it was hard to appreciate the lime aioli, red chili and slaw. The accompanying fries had a nice slightly irregular texture but were pretty forgettable with their complex flavor profile of... salt. (Combined with a thrilling side of... Heinz ketchup.)

Pulled pork sandwich at Smokeyard BBQAmy's pulled pork sandwich was better than I expected. All too often pulled pork is drowning in cloyingly sweet sauce, but that wasn't the case here at all. Combining the same balanced house BBQ sauce as the ribs with a slight tang from the pickled onion made for a solid plate—especially since that plate included the surprise standout of the meal, the housemade barbecue chips. They had a great salty crunch with touches of sugar and smokiness. The seasoning could be a little more evenly spread, but if they solve that, they should be bagging these and shipping them around the country.

Now that UTC Mall is putting the finishing touches on its massive renovation, has finally come into its own as a food destination: its lineup now includes Larsen's, Great Maple, Eureka, Sweetfin Poke and Din Tai Fung, to name a few. Though it may not stand out among this group of upscale eateries, Smokeyard certainly fits right in.

Score: 7.5 out of 10 (Great)

Sunday, September 16, 2018


Fun fact: Tajima's carnitas ramen cures all known ailments,
but they've vowed never to make it again. Those monsters.
...Maybe I got ahead of myself. I'm Tim. I write a food blog now. It's about food, in San Diego.

Hmm? That's not enough info? Okay.

I'm a native of San Diego, married in 2017 to my lovely wife Amy. My biggest hobby is trying out new restaurants all over my city. I love Italian (pizza, pasta!), Indian (curry!), Japanese (sushi, yakitori, ramen!), Mexican (tacos!), small plates (try all the things!) and dessert (chocolate, ice cream, donuts!). I can be picky at times, but I'll eat most things if they're done well. I generally try one or two new places a week, usually for a happy hour late lunch, our weekly date night, or Sunday lunch with the family.

When I'm not eating, I'm teaching, tutoring, running, playing tennis, watching good TV, playing video games, or doing something else fun.

As for the blog, I'm tentatively planning to do a combination of quicker restaurant overviews and more in-depth reviews (e.g. my first one, Lola 55), with some other fun stuff sprinkled in. I'm gonna shoot for two posts a week on average. We'll see how it goes!

Other things! I apparently enjoy spreadsheets, because I have one called "What to Eat in San Diego," which you can find in the sidebar. It's got several hundred San Diego restaurants that I've either tried or want to try, and includes a bunch of general information, how much I want to visit (or revisit), and my rating on a 1–10 scale (which I'll also be using on this site).

Speaking of which, I've included my (admittedly vague) grading rubric in the sidebar as well. Generally I care most about the food itself, but service and other aspects do factor in. It's surprisingly hard to maintain a consistent, sensible rating system, but I try. I should also note that scores are by no means set in stone.

Anyway, I hope a few folks get some decent entertainment and/or information from my ramblings. Enjoy!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Lola 55

Lola 55, a downtown San Diego restaurant
I should probably start blogging with a bunch of introduction, but... do I have to? I'd rather jump right into talking about some really delicious food... so I'm gonna do that instead.

Lola 55 is a new taco spot on the outskirts of downtown San Diego, and after visiting three times, I can say it's probably the best "gourmet" taqueria in the city. The experience here is all about infusing the traditional with the modern. As you walk into the stylish, airy space full of concrete and glass, someone behind the counter is pressing masa into tortillas using a wooden press. The tacos include carnitas and carne asada, but also vegan rainbow cauliflower and baby carrot adobada.

Drink at Lola 55
The "Indian Summer."
The drink setup is a bit odd; I ended up ordering food at the counter and then drinks separately at the bar. My cucumber strawberry cocktail, muddled with cilantro, was sweet and refreshing, and my wife's fairly conventional mule thankfully wasn't too overbearing with the ginger.

The masa frita is as good a place as any to start eating. These fried round chips are like a fancy version of Fritos, except with chili powder and a non-lethal level of salt. The two sauces, a sweet mole and an avocado cream, keep things interesting and are even better when combined.

And now the tacos. I overheard the manager saying the menu has been whittled down from fourteen tacos during their soft opening to the current nine, so they've clearly given some thought to the lineup—and it shows. I've tried six of them, and impressively there hasn't been a single dud so far.

The squash blossom relleno is well battered and comes with a good approximation of a beef chorizo that coaxes some admirable meatiness out of its soy base. The almond "cream cheese" has a nice fluffy texture, and though it's not as pungent as the real thing, that also means it doesn't overassert itself. Overall, not a standout, but non-vegans such as myself will still enjoy it.

Spicy baja fish taco at Lola 55
Approach with caution!
The spicy smoked fish is delicious, but beware: It's aptly named. The flaky white fish has the right level of smokiness, and the tacos include a pleasant mix of bitter greens, citrus and even some bacon, but all of that seems secondary once the Carolina Reaper salsa hits. It's probably not going to kill you if you're a fan of spice—the dose makes the poison, after all—but I would peg this salsa at roughly habanero-tier heat. If you're debating whether to get it, maybe you shouldn't. There's so much else to try!

The flavors on the pork belly al pastor—and just those four words together should be making your mouth water—are as good as they sound. It comes with some bits of grilled pineapple, as any good al pastor should. When combined with what looks like a lusciously thick-cut bacon strip, the result is something sweet, savory, tropical and wonderful. My only gripe is that the pork belly has a bit of chew to it, and so it doesn't quite achieve that ideal combination of crispiness and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.

The ribeye carne asada is another big winner. I'm a sucker for crispy leeks, and those little straws of crunchy goodness are used perfectly here. A mild heat from the jalapeño and a daub of salty mashed potato provide a terrific base for the ribeye, which is cooked about medium and seasoned well. The only slight issue, again, is tenderness: It's not that chewy, but the pieces are quite large, so a long strip can come sliding out all at once if you don't manage to bite all the way through.

Carne asada & al pastor tacos at Lola 55
Ribeye carne asada & pork belly al pastor. A mouse musta taken a bite of the tortilla.

The baja fish is among the best in a city famous for its fish tacos. As with the squash blossom, it's got a nice coating of crisp golden batter. The chorizo-tomato vinaigrette, while not so appealing visually, is a great salty-savory complement. The remoulade, as it's called on the menu, is basically a very garlicky aioli—but there is no universe where I'm going to complain about aioli. Aioli is never not good.

Lola 55's carnitas taco
The smoked carnitas might be the most traditional of the six tacos I tried, and it also might be the best. The key here is the two preparations of pork at play: one is confited for maximum tenderness, while the other is crisped to perfection to create a satisfying texture. The pickled red onion and thinly shaved tomatillo create contrasting colors and add much-needed acidity. A creamy avocado mousse and a generous sprinkle of cilantro round out one of the best carnitas tacos I've had anywhere.

Lastly, I made the impulse decision to get not one but two orders of churros, because we're dessert people and specifically churro people. Best decision I ever made. (Okay, best decision of the night.) We each got four fresh churro pieces that nailed that classic crisp-outside, soft-inside texture. They were also unusually craggy on the outside, which allowed for more crunchy, cinnamon-sugary surface area. The two sauces, a light caramel and a salted milk chocolate, were both delightful. I scraped my chocolate cup clean with my fork.

I've thought about writing a food blog for a while now. I'm not exactly sure why, but it was after eating at Lola 55 that I decided to start. Maybe it's because Lola combines a lot of what I love about food in San Diego: really great Mexican cuisine, tons of small plates to try (tacos are small plates, right? why not?), and thoughtful, creative use of ingredients. Whatever the reason, I'm coming back for more.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)